The Grammarphobia Blog

Can cluelessness be betrayed?

Q: I am a physician who blogs and strives to improve his style. But I stumble when I see a statement like this one on an NY Times blog: “it betrays a surprising lack of awareness of some critical aspects of the medical profession.” What is being betrayed here? A lack of awareness? Or the medical profession? I would think the latter.

A: The verb “betray” has several meanings that concern disloyalty: one can betray a country, a cause, a confidence, or a spouse.

But you’re asking about a different sense of the word: to make known unintentionally (as in, “The snicker betrayed his true feelings”).

The comment that got your attention—by Lawrence K. Altman, a Times medical writer and professor of medicine at NYU—is about an article in the New York Review of Books by a doctor who was seriously injured in an accident.

In the article, Arnold Relman, a doctor with six decades of experience, writes that he “had never before understood how much good nursing care contributes to patients’ safety and comfort.”

In commenting on that, Altman writes that Relman’s sudden realization of the importance of nursing “betrays a surprising lack of awareness of some critical aspects of the medical profession and the nation’s fragmented health care system.”

Altman is using the word “betrays” here to mean “unintentionally reveals.” What is being revealed? Relman’s former cluelessness about the importance of nursing.

The verb “betray” entered English in the 1200s with the sense of “to give up to, or place in the power of an enemy, by treachery or disloyalty,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English adopted the word from Old French, but it’s ultimately derived from the Latin verb tradere, meaning to deliver or hand over.

The sense of the word you’re asking about showed up in the late 16th century. The OED defines it this way: “To reveal or disclose against one’s will or intention the existence, identity, real character of (a person or thing desired to be kept secret).”

The earliest citation in the dictionary for the usage is from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598): “I do betray my selfe with blushing.”

And here’s an example from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Ire, envie and despair … betraid Him counterfet.”

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